Death in the Mediterranean

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Lieutenant captain Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso. © Isabelle Merminod

After the drowning of more than 370 migrants on 3 October 2013 just off the Italian island of Lampedusa, Italy set up the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation, through which the existing Italian coastguard operation would gain the support of the Italian navy.

After pressure from the EU, the operation was shut down in November 2014 in favour of an EU-sponsored surveillance operation – Triton. Triton is run by EU border agency Frontex and includes a limited search-and-rescue mandate, being primarily about border control.

In 2014, some 3,000 migrants died in the Mediterranean. In the first 4 months of 2015 alone, it is estimated that some 1,700 have died. In just one incident on 19 April a reported capsizing led to 700 deaths.

After this incident, EU ministers increased funding for Triton, while simultaneously focusing on a counter-strategy against smugglers and more resettlement programmes into Europe – although this last policy has been contested by some EU governments.

Walking on thin ice

Daniele Esibini, the captain of Italian coastguard ship Peluso, docked in Messina for maintenance, knows something of the dangerous migrant rescue operations.

The first problem is overloading the boats, he explains, which leads to them capsizing – frequently exactly at the point of rescue. He has never come across a boat that was not overloaded and therefore dangerous.

‘The minimum number I have taken from a rubber boat was 55 people… [The boat] was about 10 metres long,’ he says.

On the other hand, if the smuggler’s boat has two decks, death through asphyxiation can easily occur on the lower deck.

If the smugglers use a wooden boat, ‘constructed on two decks… people on the upper deck can cause the boat to capsize. But the people on the bottom deck of the boat can’t breathe… this is another risk… [the] engines and [the] high temperature.’

Esibini says that one of the most difficult scenarios for a captain is to have four or five ‘echoes’ on the radar screen at the same time. With little or no information about what kind of boats they’re facing, or the conditions on the boats, captains have to take a blind decision about which boat to save first.

He is also clear that the most dangerous part of a search-and-rescue operation is the moment of rescue. As rescuers approach, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to guide your rescuers. ‘If the [passengers] stand up, the boat capsizes.’

He generally stops his engines just under a kilometre from the boat waiting to be rescued. His rescue team then approaches by dinghy and speaks to the people: ‘To tell them they are safe. To say to them we will rescue them, but that they must stay calm and quiet.’

Touching wood, he adds: ‘I have never had a boat capsize. It is like [being] on “thin ice”.’

Triton’s failure

Throughout 2014, some European countries argued against Mare Nostrum. On 15 October 2014, Baroness Anelay of St Johns put forth the view of the British government:

‘We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations…We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths,’ she declared.

On Christmas Day 2014 – two months after the start of the Triton operation – Frontex announced its much-prophesied defeat.

‘Operation Triton cannot be expected to handle the migrant challenge alone. It has 2 aircrafts and a helicopter at its disposal, 2 open-sea patrol vessels, and 4 coastal ones: a fleet appropriate to its mandate, which is to control the EU’s borders, not to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean. Triton’s budget, at €2.9 million [$3.1million] a month, is one third of what Italy was spending on Operation Mare Nostrum.’

In Palermo on 13 March 2015, at a conference on the migration issue called Io Sono Persona (I am a person), the Director of the Italian Department of Civil Liberty and Immigration, Mario Morcone, stated:

‘I don’t believe that Mare Nostrum was a “pull factor”… I think it was a big and important humanitarian operation. We cannot push back the people.’

Most dangerous is the moment of rescue. As rescuers approach, the very human reaction is to stand up and wave to guide your rescuers. ‘If the [passengers] stand up, the boat capsizes’

He pointed out that, whatever politicians across Europe say, Italy has signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires signatory countries to save people in distress at sea.

When asked about the difference between Mare Nostrum and the Frontex operation, Triton, he replied simply: ‘We must [carry out] the same operation with smaller ships.’

In 2014, ‘the total number of people saved under the co-ordination of the Italian search-and-rescue authority (MRCC Rome) was 166,370,’ according to the office of Admiral Angrisano, the head of Italy’s coastguard.

Some 38,000 were saved by the coastguard, 42,000 by international merchant ships and 82,000 by the Italian Navy.

But perhaps no single organization can be reasonably expected, to borrow from Frontex’s words, ‘to police 2.5 million square kilometres of the Mediterranean’.

Tunisians on hunger strike against regime’s secret files

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Hunger striker Houda Chhidi before paramedics arrived. © Isabelle Merminod

Twenty-three hunger strikers – professionals without a profession – say they were unfairly excluded from examinations for government posts during the time of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

‘We demand recruitment into public-service posts; before, we were excluded because of our [political] activity. Now they talk about liberty and democracy. Okay, let them show us!’ challenges Houda Chhidi, one of three women hunger strikers in the capital, Tunis.

They claim that, because of their opposition to the dictator Ben Ali, security decisions against them are still in force – four years after Tunisia’s revolution.

They have been on hunger strike since 16 March. At first they were staying in a hall provided by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s main union force, but they have now moved to another office, off Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’ main boulevard.

The hunger strikers are calling on Prime Minister Habib Essid’s new government for fair employment. They represent 186 ex-members of UGET – Tunisia’s official student union – and they all had so-called ‘B2’ security reports from the Ministry of the Interior in the 1990s and 2000s.

In the past, having a security file meant being denied a government post, or, sometimes, even being forbidden from taking part in national examinations for a government post. As many hunger strikers trained as teachers, this meant they were effectively unemployable in Tunisia’s state education system.

‘We were marginalized, we were excluded from the national competitions for public posts,’ says Chhidi. ‘What is a B2? All your activities, your opinions. Are you a trade unionist? Are you a member of a political party? You know that the UGET, which was part of the UGTT, was part of all that happened against Ben Ali.’

She adds that the youngest of the hunger strikers is 35 years old. Some of them have struggled for many years to find any type of job, but even in the private sector their security reports follow them.

Chhidi is a geologist, but she hasn’t worked as one since 2007. She gets by taking jobs in kindergartens, looking after old people, and giving individual classes in maths and science, but her life is precarious without a future. She lives with her nine-year-old son and hasn’t managed to pay the rent recently; her landlord has threatened to kick them out.

She believes that B2 security reports are still used, and that members of Ben Ali’s political party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), remain within the management of the Ministry of the Interior, Tunisia’s most powerful ministry.

A human rights report from 2006 reveals how B2 security reports were used: ‘The Ministry of the Interior brings together all the information on every citizen through the famous reports called B2, held secretly by the various units of the security forces of the interior. These reports contain all the personal information… that is, religious views, political, philosophical and trade-union opinions. The report extends to family and friends and is effectively a collective punishment against the family of opponents [of the regime of Ben Ali].’

While the Ministry of the Interior declined to comment for this article, there is other evidence of its continued use of secret Ben Ali files. In December 2014, Youssef Boussoumah, an anti-racist activist in France, who actively supported the opposition to Ben Ali, was stopped on entry to Tunisia and deported, according to human rights organizations.

He is quoted as saying: ‘My deportation comes from a police security report from 1987, according to what police have told me. That was 30 years ago!’

In 2013, two years after the revolution, a group of Tunisian NGOs recommended that Tunisians be given access to their personal files and be allowed to rectify errors. But security files remain in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior and out of reach of those whose lives continue to be damaged by reports made during the dictatorship.

Houda Chhidi has applied for public-service jobs recently, but has not been given employment. And in Tunisia, there are no unemployment benefits: if you are out of work, you have nothing.

Fellow hunger striker Hatem Benali is in similar circumstances. He is 40 years old, and has a wife and three children. He comes from the south of Tunisia, and from 1997 until 2005 was at university, serving as a national officer of UGET. ‘My aim was political: confrontation with the regime of Ben Ali… I suffered lots of harassment. The harassment of Ben Ali was unexpected in its intensity: harassment of my family, harassment for me.’

He passed 12 public competitions for public posts, but never got a job. The B2 blocked him. On two occasions, he was actually refused entry into the exam hall.

‘They said: “You can pass whatever exam you want, but you will never succeed”.’ During Ben Ali’s reign, security police even phoned his fiancée (now his wife), telling her not to marry Hatem, as he would never get a job.

For Houda Chhidi, the situation is the same now as it was before the revolution. She says: ‘We even passed public competitions for posts which required lower academic levels than our own… Masters, PHDs. There are 22- and 23-year-olds who have been successful, but us, never.’

The hunger strikers remain determined to continue until they get a deal from the government. They are in a desperate situation, suffering dehydratation and kidney problems.

Kacem Afaya, the UGTT deputy general-secretary for international relations and migration, says that the B2 ‘was proof that they had been barred from employment for their political opinion’.

Eleven of the hunger strikers have stepped up the action by refusing to drink. One of them is Houda Chhidi, who at the time of writing had been taken unconscious to a hospital.

Tunisians vote for secular government

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On 26 October, 69 per cent of the electorate went into the polling booths. © Isabelle Merminod; Tim Baster

‘I hear that most people are disappointed in Ennahda. Most people say that life was less expensive under Ben Ali.’

Mohamed Touiar, a quiet spoken pensioner, is in a school serving as a polling station in Bab Jdid, a working class neighborhood in central Tunis. It is Sunday, 26 October. Tunisians are voting for their parliament and it is only the second time since independence in 1956 that they are voting freely.

217 seats in Tunisia’s legislature are at stake, together with the sliding hopes of millions of Tunisians who thronged the streets shouting ‘Dégage’ (‘Get out!’) in the revolution of January 2011.   

After the polling booth, for the young, it is smartphones out for pictures of an inked finger to show they have voted – in front of the Tunisian flag in the school courtyard, of course. But there are worryingly few young people waiting to vote in some central Tunis voting stations.

Mr. Touiar turned out to be right. Ennahda – the party of political Islam – lost deputies; down from a victorious 89 seats in the post revolution elections of October 2011 to 69 in these elections; Nidaa Tounes, a new secular/liberal party set up in 2012 won the majority, with 85 seats.

A well-heeled businessman, Slim Riahi, won 16 seats for his UPL party. The Popular Front left wing coalition won 15 seats. Afek Tounes, a liberal party, won 8 seats. Small parties make up the other 24 seats.

Within Tunisia, 69 per cent of the electorate went into the polling booths. Once inside, Tunisians had to choose one party list, sometimes from over 50 different political party lists presented by perhaps slightly over-enthusiastic Tunisian democrats. Voting in a young democracy is not for the faint-hearted. 

Why are Tunisians disappointed with Ennahda? The party held onto power with two other small parties from the October 2011 elections until it was forced to hand over to a government of independent technocrats in January 2014.

The critics say that Ennahda’s period in power was marked by the growth of terrorism, the mismanagement of the economy and a failure to agree a new constitution. The assassination of two left wingers in February and July 2013 led to huge demonstrations outside the parliament and across the country. The political crisis was only finally resolved by the resignation of the Ennahda government.

Nidaa Tounes, the secular/liberal party, doesn’t have an outright majority, so a coalition is inevitable. They also have a political burden which may drag them down in the months to come – they have ex-members of the dictator’s party the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) within their ranks.  

The return by ex-RCD members to political life infuriates people who lost loved ones and young revolutionaries who courageously demonstrated for change in 2011.

Ennahda members also have reason to hate senior ex-RCD members, who were part of the state which brutally suppressed Islamists in the 1990s. Although the dictator’s party, the RCD, is banned, ex-members can present themselves in any elections.

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, had already suggested a national unity government even before the elections.

At this very early stage, it appears that some grass roots members of the left wing Popular Front seem open to an alliance.

At a Popular Front rally on October 29, a member said, ‘We are going to have to arrive sooner or later at a solution….I am in agreement [with a national unity government] because everyone had to participate; all the tendencies, right, left and Islamists. It is important to achieve balance.’

Another Popular Front member at the rally said that a unity government would be good ‘for Tunisia, for Africa and for the Mediterranean,’ noting that Tunisia was now a model society in the Arab world.  

But any coalition would be difficult and there is a range of other issues which might fracture any possible coalition: economic difficulties already severely damaging the lives of many Tunisians; increasing acts of terrorism; the failure to control smuggling and arms trafficking at frontiers; the continued impunity of the un-reformed police and the Ministry of the Interior; and the inequality and lack of dignity suffered by many Tunisians.  

Post-revolutionary Tunisia is often painted as a secular/Islamist struggle. But it is more like a struggle between old and new elites with a profound sense of entitlement. The ex-RCD, Nidaa Tounes and the new Ennahda elites argue about who gets what, while ordinary Tunisians – both secular and Islamist – struggle against injustice, inequality and unemployment. 

PHOTO ESSAY: For Eritrean migrants, there is more dignity in death

On 3 October, a 17 metre long smuggler’s boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. At around 3am around 550 people, mostly Eritreans, fought for their lives in the sea. Officials have given slightly differing figures, but some 370 bodies have now been recovered while 156 survived the sinking.

Approximately 16,000 people died on the EU border from 1998 to 2012 according to UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau.

But EU politicians speak of further tightening border control as if turning irregular migration into a security issue will stop people fleeing from repression.

Above: Italian politicians spoke of national funerals and even the grant of posthumous citizenship. But two weeks later, there is only silence. The coffins at the port of Lampedusa are lifted onto the deck of the Italian naval vessel, the Libra, for their next journey to Sicily. Many bodies have still not been identified by relatives or survivors.

Above: In the presence of international journalists, survivors recount the sinking of their decrepit boat that sailed from Libya. Some had spent two months in a Libyan safe house waiting for the smuggler’s boat to leave for Italy, their next destination. They lost friends and relatives. They knew the children. 370 lost their life on this journey; 156 have to continue theirs.

Above: Mostly from Europe, relatives come to identify their loved ones. They spend hours in the Carabineri’s (Italian military police) office in front of hundreds of photos of bodies or looking at photos of objects and jewellery that might have belonged to their loved ones. Occasionally a coffin would be lowered to the quay to allow relatives to mourn. Although time was limited, they were able to mourn in front of a named coffin not a number.

Above: As the children's coffins are carried to the naval vessel by survivors, soldiers and police stand to attention in an honour guard on either side. But when the children lived they were forced to run Europe’s tight border controls in a dangerous boat with no navigation instruments.

Above: After spending some time by the side of a coffin, an Eritrean relative looks on, distraught. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has said that the victims are now 'Italian citizens'. But were EU immigration polices based on human rights, not xenophobia and hatred, these 370 people might not have taken a dangerous boat to arrive in Italy and might still be alive.

Above: The white coffins for the eight children found in the wreckage of the boat at Lampedusa’s shore are brought back together with the other coffins and will be transported to Sicily. A teddy bear – a gift from Italian children – was placed on top of each coffin.

Above: Christians and Muslims pray together remembering the dead in a final farewell before letting the boat make its journey to Sicily. Relatives and survivors do not know where the bodies will go next.* The Eritrean government has asked for the repatriation of the bodies to Eritrea.

Above: These migrants are not the first to have died near the coast of Lampedusa, and tragically, are unlikely to be the last. In April, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau condemned the border control policies of the European Union and the ‘political discourse’ which turns irregular migration into a ‘security problem.’

He believes that ‘repression of irregular migration is counterproductive, as it drives migrants further underground, thereby empowering smuggling rings, and creating conditions of alienation and marginalization that foster human rights violations.’

Will European leaders listen?

All photographs are the copyright of Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod.

*It is now known that the bodies are being buried in cemeteries in Sicily.

Refugees challenge Tunisia on human rights

‘Are human rights just for Tunisians or for everyone? They cut off everything: electricity, water, everything,’ cried Hadi. On 30 June, the Tunisian army, which guards the Choucha refugee camp on the Tunisia/Libya border, emptied the water tanks and shut down all services. But around 400 people are refusing to leave. Half of them are recognized refugees; the other half had their refugee applications refused; they are now hoping for a deal on residence permits from the Tunisian government.

A Darfurian woman from the Choucha camp on hunger strike in front of the UNHCR Tunis office, in Tunisia. Her daughter reads her UNHCR document attesting to her recognized refugee status. On 4 April 2013.

Isabelle Merminod

Hadi is from Darfur and is a recognized refugee. He is part of a group that has been demonstrating against ‘local integration’ outside the UNHCR building in Tunis since 26 March. They are demanding resettlement to safe countries, as Tunisia has no protection or rights for refugees. They oppose UNHCR’s plans to integrate them locally without rights.

Fleeing Libya

Hundreds of thousands of migrants fled the war in Libya in 2011. UNHCR’s Global Report for 2011 states that although the Tunisia/Libya border was generally open, ‘periodic restrictions were applied’. It goes on to say: ‘UNHCR made a commitment to assist in finding durable solutions for recognized refugees,’ to encourage Tunisia not to close the border.

Tunisia did not – and still does not – consider applications for refugee status

Most of the thousands who fled Libya in 2011 returned home, but some 4,000 could not go back for fear of persecution. These were granted refugee status by the UNHCR. Tunisia did not – and still does not – consider applications for refugee status. According to UNHCR, most resettled refugees from Choucha have already been taken by the United States (1,717) and Norway (485). The EU has granted little resettlement; Germany took the most refugees at 201, Britain took three, Italy two and France one.

What happens after Choucha?

Now the camp has closed, a UNHCR official has stated that the aim is ‘to continue to provide assistance and protection to refugees…’ and to support ‘Tunisian authorities for the adoption of a legal framework that would formally guarantee refugee rights.’

Refugees say that about 70 of them have accepted local integration at a designated centre in Medenine. UNHCR have said that about 300 recognized refugees will be integrated locally in Tunisia and believes that the Tunisian government will grant temporary residence permits.

A child walking in the middle of destroyed tents after a sand storm in the Choucha refugee camp. On 26 April 2013.

Isabelle Merminod

Refugees say that about two-thirds of this group are now living without official supplies, water or electricity in Choucha, along with a similar number of refused asylum seekers, although local Salafists have recently started to collect some food and water for them.

According to the UNHCR, most of this group of recognized refugees arrived after the ‘cut off’ date of 1 December 2011 when automatic resettlement was stopped.

‘Where is Europe? Where is human rights?’

An official of UNHCR stated ‘integrating into the local community could offer a durable solution to the plight of refugees and the opportunity of starting a new life,’ but local integration does not mean that refugees obtain any rights. The rights laid down in the 1951 Refugee Convention include: the right to work; social security and labour rights; the right to identity papers and travel documents; and naturalization. Without them, a new life is far away.

Refugees at Medenine who have accepted local integration are in despair

The Choucha refugees do not have temporary residence permits, although on 17 July the Tunisian press reported a government announcement that residence permits and work would be made available.

Recently there was an attempted abduction of a young man from the demonstration outside UNHCR. The police questioned the refugees about why they were demonstrating while refusing to open a file regarding their complaint. In another case, an asylum seeker was rounded up and imprisoned for deportation. After a night in the cells he managed to persuade the police to accept a call from UNHCR, who secured his release.

A Somalian woman sits in a tent with her baby at the Choucha refugee camp on 26 April 2013.

Isabelle Merminod

Refugees at Medenine who have accepted local integration are in despair. A small group said that they have no residence papers, no work and not enough money to live on and they were recently told that their families will not be allowed to join them in Tunisia. As one young Somali pointed out: ‘Where is Europe? Where is human rights?’

There are two discourses in Europe today. One is ‘being tough’: exclusion and capitulation to racism and xenophobia. The other is the language of the ideals of Europe’s most significant social and political movements: equality, justice and – in the 1951 Refugee Convention – ‘international co-operation’ to resolve situations like that of the refugees of Tunisia by resettling them in other countries.

Which way will European ministers go?

Hunger strikers: ‘We will die here’

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Hunger striker outside the UNHCR in Tunis Isabelle Merminod

He has been granted refugee status – twice. First in Libya and then in Tunisia. But it has not meant protection. He sits on hunger strike on a dusty road outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis.

Ibrahim is from Darfur. He is on hunger strike with 43 other refugees. They represent 228 other people in a temporary camp called Choucha in the south of Tunisia. They say they are all protesting against UNCHR’s decision to stop the ‘resettlement’ of recognized refugees from Tunisia to a safe country.

Resettlement programme halted

The group has been on hunger strike since 29 March 2013. They are mostly Somalis or Sudanese people from Darfur. In the past they say a person at Choucha granted refugee status was then normally ‘resettled’ – that means moved to another safe country. This was usually the US, Canada or Australia. Hunger strikers say that Spain, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Portugal also provided a small number of places.

However, they say they were told a year ago by UNHCR that they will never be resettled as they arrived in Tunisia after a ‘cut off’ date in December 2011 when the resettlement programme was halted. They are told they must now integrate into Tunisian society and that the Choucha camp will be closed in June.

No legal status in Tunisia

But there is a problem with the closure of the camp and ‘integration.’ Ibrahim and his fellow hunger strikers explain that Tunisia has no refugee law yet. So there is no residence permit for refugees who are recognized, or for asylum seekers awaiting a decision. They will be illegal in Tunisia, living without rights or protection. Hadi from Darfur says that already, ‘there are security problems when we go to work in Tunisian cities, there is a misunderstanding, they say you came to take our livelihoods and take our jobs. And they beat you and also when you go to the police station they say, “You are refugees and you have no rights.”’

Amina has four children all under 11 years old. Her husband has died. She has been in the Choucha camp for 16 months and has nowhere to go if the camp closes. ‘It is very difficult for me, I do not have brothers, I do not have relatives from Darfur. I came from Libya. Because Libya is broken I came to Choucha.’

‘Our right is to be settled and treated as human beings. UNHCR say it is impossible, but UNHCR gave us refugee status and we will remain here on hunger strike,’ added another hunger striker.

Choucha camp has three categories of people. Hadi explains: ‘228 who have refugee status, but no resettlement. About 200 have nothing, they have a rejected file. Also there is people who have resettlement to America. They are waiting to travel only; they have finished the process.’

The military wait

The hunger strikers are well aware of what faces them all in the Choucha camp in June. Hadi says: ‘The military are warning us: “We are just waiting for orders to come and clean this place.” The military are around the camp. It is difficult for us to sleep at Choucha camp; here in Tunis we can sleep.’

They say there is no food for the 200 rejected asylum seekers in Choucha camp. There is only food for those who are to be resettled and those who have been granted refugee status but must ‘integrate.’

In June there will be no food for anyone.

Turkish authorities target trade unions


In Istanbul more than 4,000 protested against the clampdown on trade union activists.
Photo by Isabelle Merminod.

Early on the morning of 25 June, trade union activists were targeted in a police operation which swept through 18 Turkish cities. All those who were questioned, arrested or had their houses searched are affiliated to the Confederation of Public Sector Unions (KESK), one of the country’s main trade union confederations.

Those arrested included general secretaries and presidents of affiliated unions, as well as lay officials. Lami Özgen, the president of KESK, was one of those detained. Following his release on 29 June, he exposed that the arrested union members were being held in ‘F-type’ high-security prisons built for those convicted of terrorism.

In F-type prisons, inmates are kept three to a cell. They get just half an hour visiting time with their family each week. Visitors and prisoners are separated by a glass screen and talk via telephone – only once a month are they allowed to meet in the same room. Union officials are not normally given permission to visit.

Of the 58 named in the arrest warrants, six avoided being detained because they were not at home when the police arrived. As of 3 July, 28 remained in prison. In addition, the homes of a further 14 members, not named on the warrants, were also searched.

Within 12 hours of the arrests, KESK members had organized protests across Turkey. In Istanbul some 4,000 demonstrators held an evening protest rally in the city centre, with parallel actions taking place in other cities.

‘All those with arrest warrants against them have been charged with the same thing,’ Lami Özgen confirmed. ‘That is, [attending] KESK meetings and other activities between 8 August 2011 and the end of June 2012.’

Turkish authorities claim that these meetings are illegal because, they say, they took place on the order of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK) which is linked to the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

The ‘illegal activities’ cited in the arrest warrants include a union meeting on 8 October 2011 in the capital Ankara with the theme of ‘Human Life in a Free and Democratic Turkey’ (ironically, the police had granted permission for this meeting to take place), a one-day strike on 21 December in defence of the right to strike and collective bargaining and campaigning by the teachers’ union against changes in their members’ working practices.

Lami Özgen believes that media reporting of the activities has given the prosecutor the ability to make the claim that the events are linked to the KCK. One news agency in particular, FIRAT, which publishes in Turkish, English and Kurdish, has reported on KESK’s activities.

The series of arrests last month is far from a one-off attack on trade unions in Turkey. On 13 February, 15 female members of KESK were arrested because of meetings they had held to discuss International Women’s Day on 8 March. The prosecutor has claimed that these women also have connections to the KCK. Six of them have been released on bail, but nine remain in an F-type prison, awaiting the start of their trial on 4 October.

Lami Özgen stresses that his members are not the only people facing these kinds of charges. Many writers, journalists, parliamentary deputies and students are also in jail. On 29 June, four days after the arrests of the KESK union members, journalists demonstrated in Istanbul in support of 95 jailed colleagues. A major trial began on 2 July, in which the 205 defendants – including journalists and a well-known publisher – are being charged with having connections to the KCK.

In its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011, the US State Department lists concerns of abuses in Turkey. Top of the list is the country’s defective justice system. The report criticizes Turkey’s very broad laws against terrorism, its lengthy pre-trial detention, lack of transparency, restricted defence access to evidence, and the connections between prosecutors and judges.

This article first appeared on the Public Services International website. Reproduced with permission.